Saturday, April 01, 2006

Putting A Human Face On Tragedy

I've been reading transcripts and listening to edited tapes of the calls to 911 on September 11.

The overwhelming feeling I've noticed is compassion. It would be easy to get angry at the frustrating delays. The first time I heard the Hanley tape the other day, I was infuriated by the fact it took the fire dispatch eight rings to pick up, until I realized what I'm about to speak to in this article.
Transcripts show despair, chaos


March 31, 2006, 3:08 PM EST

The tapes and transcripts are stark reminders of the chaos and confusion of the day.

Even with the callers' portions of the conversations redacted, the panic and hopelessness are often apparent.

"I have a call from a lady at the Bank of New York states that World Trade," one police operator said to another.

"Yeah, we got that already," came the reply.

"OK, she states on the northwest side there is a woman, an unidentified person, hanging from the top of the building, One World Trade Center," the first operator said.

At first, some callers didn't seem to realize what had happened. One woman reported a car on fire at the corner of Albany and West streets at 8:58 a.m.

"Have you looked up towards the top of the Trade Center recently?" the dispatcher asked. After the caller replied, he continued: "That's probably what it's from. We will take care of it."
On reading it, it sounds harsh, cruel even, the way the dispatch operators are speaking to people, condescendingly.

And yet, maybe it's my acting training, but the panic apparent in those people's words (never mind their voices) speaks to the freezing unknown of that day. As we were all stricken with paralysis and shock, so too were these people, inundated with phone calls of people about to die, who knew, just knew, they were about to die, and were looking for some reassurance.

Listen to the calls here.

So imagine you're on the other end of those calls, hundreds of them, interspersed between people pointing out what you already know: the Trade Center Towers are lit up with the fires of thousands of gallons of jet fuel, smoke billowing, people falling. In the end, you have to choose between doing your job or going insane with panic. And you didn't have the opportunity to stand around and watch, try to make sense of what was happening. It just happened, and you had ot keep going.

Ever been in a car crash? I've been in several, some of them pretty serious. Your mind either focuses and "goes away." I've experienced both sensations. My most vivid memory is the time I nearly got thrown into a concrete barrier at 50 miles an hour, but for the grace of God and a steering wheel that didn't break until after the car stopped completely. I had such a tight grip on it that I stumbled out the door, two pieces of the wheel in my hands. All I remember about the collision was "Steer the direction you want to go, Carl."

I can only imagine what would have happened if that hadn't kicked in, if instead, I put my hands to my face and prayed to God while the car slammed into the wall, throwing me clear. I guess I'd be an interesting smear on that wall to this day.

So I sympathize with those dispatchers, as nasty as some of them read:
Sounds of helplessness and despair from 911 tapes

"It's an awful thing. Awful, awful, awful thing to call somebody and tell them you're going to die," one police operator, who had just finished talking to a group trapped on the 83rd floor of south tower, told another operator at 9:53 a.m. "I hope they're all alive because they sound like they went -- they passed out because they were breathing hard, like snoring, like they're unconscious."

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